Recently, we lost a fine writer. In my humble opinion, Elmore Leonard, who passed away on August 20 at the age of 87, should rank among the very best of them. Surely no one was a bigger presence in the realm of crime fiction. Leonard’s talent was immeasurable. His prose was crisp, his ability to paint a vivid picture with a few strokes was peerless, and his characters were always believable and interesting.
Recently, we lost a fine writer. In my humble opinion, Elmore Leonard, who passed away on August 20 at the age of 87, should rank among the very best of them. Surely no one was a bigger presence in the realm of crime fiction. Leonard’s talent was immeasurable. His prose was crisp, his ability to paint a vivid picture with a few strokes was peerless, and his characters were always believable and interesting. The same could be said for his plots, and his trademark dialogue was impeccable. I have been in awe of his ability to tell a story since I picked up Freaky Deaky once upon a time and fell in love with his fast-moving and incredibly rewarding style.
He was great at humor, and he could provide his readers with suspense, action, and drama. Romance came easy to him, but it was never the overwrought brand of attraction that typically sinks ships in the literary world. Leonard could do it all, and he did it with incredible consistency. As with any author, some of his books were better than others, but he never produced a true dud. Most importantly, he never failed to entertain. I hope that will prove to be his legacy: Elmore Leonard wrote books that were fun to read. Within the realm of fiction, shouldn’t that be every author’s ultimate purpose? Whether you’re targeting people who like things that go bump in the night, people who dig westerns, or people looking for a few cheap thrills, the idea is to give them their money’s worth. That’s what Leonard did; he did it frequently, and he never fell short. The man was a legend.
Now, before I start breaking down my picks, I want to explain my feelings on this Top 5, and Leonard’s work in general. While putting this list together, I realized just how difficult it is to compare and contrast Leonard’s books. In my opinion–and some may strongly disagree–his biggest gift was the ability to tell one terrific story after another without misfiring. Unlike many authors, he doesn’t have any books that tower over his other offerings. Recommending a particular book by Leonard isn’t the easiest task, though I’m totally comfortable recommending any of them, if that makes sense. Think of it like this: if I’m going to recommend a book by Stephen King to someone unfamiliar with his work, I know I’m going to pick The Stand or ‘Salem’s Lot. In my mind, those works dwarf most of his books, even though I enjoy most of what he’s written. Elmore Leonard was of a different breed I’m not sure that he has any genuine masterpieces on his shelf, but all of his books are entertaining and unpredictable.
This may stem from his unique approach to telling a story and resolving a conflict, particularly in light of the standard within his genre of choice, crime fiction. Most books that fall under that umbrella are going to boast an explosive climax. Maybe it will be a shootout, maybe it will be a chase, perhaps it will be a heist of some sort, but the ending typically takes on a familiar form. Leonard frequently went against the grain in that regard, making it all but impossible to predict how his novels would end. Seriously–I’ve read books by Leoard where the good guy and the bad guy talked things out or made some sort of deal at the end. I’ve read a book of his in which the main character simply walked away from the big crime the whole book seemed to be leading toward, and decided to watch a baseball game instead. Of course, many of his books end with shootouts or chases or heists, but in the end, his range and his freewheeling style made it pretty much impossible to peg the outcome in advance. That always gave his work a potent dose of realism that meshed well with his vivid characterizations and his amazing ear for dialogue. Leonard didn’t write about good guys and bad guys and their exploits; he wrote about people (some good, some bad, and many who walked a line somewhere between the two) who found themselves in dire situations. You never really knew what they were going to do or how they were going to fare. That’s powerful. With many authors, certain books stand out as the best representations of their ability, yet I truly believe that with Leonard, one must look at his entire body of work. Or just pick one of his books–any of them–and dig in. He was that damn good.
I’m not sure that the 5 books I’m about to discuss are Leonard’s best books. I would give an A or a B+ to every book by him I have read, and trying to rank them is a genuine crapshoot. With that in mind, moreso than ever, this Top 5 is simply a list of my personal favorites.
Wow. I just wrote a book of my own. Let’s stop wasting time and get down to it.
James Wayland’s Top 5 Elmore Leonard Books
5) Pagan Babies
The first book on this list is the type of novel that no one else could deliver, and I found it to be one of Leonard’s most interesting and most unique projects. Father Terry Dunn, a guy who likes to drink almost as much as he likes his Nine Inch Nails shirt, is a wonderful character. His story, which revolves around a scam designed to hustle up some loot for orphans in Rwanda, is a wild ride with a host of zany players and several neat twists. Terry gets involved with a striking ex-con named Debbie Dewey. She wants to be a stand-up comic, but she’s also looking for an easy score, and soon they’re shooting for the stars, hoping to land more loot than either of them would have dreamed possible before their paths crossed. Will they pull it off? Can they trust one another? Can they trust anyone? Is Terry Dunn really a priest? This is typical Leonard, slick and unpredictable, bolstered by stellar dialogue, and impossible to put down.
Richie Nix is a lowlife who just picked the wrong dude to fuck with. Armand Degas, a man known as Blackbird, is a cold-blooded killer who could dismantle a guy like Richie with ease. However, he takes a different approach, and before long he’s showing Richie the ropes. One thing leads to another, and an attempt to lean on a wealthy realtor becomes quite problematic. Ironworker Wayne Colson and his gutsy wife Carmen emerge as the heroes after seeing Blackbird and Richie in action, leading to a tense game of cat-and-mouse. Complicating matters, Blackbird and Richie’s little partnership begins to unravel as the stakes of their deadly game grow higher and higher. The film version was an adequate take on the material, but it lacks the momentum and the insight that make this one of my favorite books by Leonard. Blackbird is a hell of a villain despite being perhaps the most likable character in the book, and both Wayne and Carmen are compelling enough to have you rooting for them until the very end. Richie does a great job of getting under everyone’s skin, and the way the conflict between he and Blackbird concludes is one of my favorite Leonard moments. Highly recommended.
3) Out of Sight
Jack Foley is one of Elmore’s most charismatic creations, and that’s really saying something. This book spawned a fantastic film adaptation, and George Clooney was absolutely perfect for the lead. Jack is a legendary bank robber who never uses a gun. He’s clever, he’s daring, and we meet him shortly before he escapes the joint and takes Deputy U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco hostage. Surprisingly, the two discover that they have amazing chemistry–but that doesn’t change who they are. It isn’t long before Jack is getting ready to pull off the biggest heist of his life, and Karen is determined to bring him down. As the plot unfolds, they try (and fail) to ignore that unmistakable chemistry, even as fate puts them at odds and then puts them on collision course. The end result is sheer magic, and few books are as funny and as gripping as this crime gem.
I’m a big fan of Elmore Leonard’s westerns, and none are as moving and as exciting as Hombre, another title that yielded a formidable film. The casting was spot-on once again, as Paul Newman was an excellent choice for the part of John Russell, a white man who lives like an Indian. Most importantly, he’s a man with his own code. It’s a powerful code, and it defines this stellar adventure just as it defines Russell, a mysterious figure who stands as perhaps Leonard’s most inspiring hero. Circumstances find Russell and five strangers on the run from a band of outlaws. Both the terrain and the outlaws threaten this group, and Russell, a true outcast, represents their only chance at survival. Russell doesn’t intend to be a hero, but he isn’t willing to submit, and he values his code more than his life. That alone is enough to turn this tale into a gripping struggle. It could be said that the only character truly worth saving is the one who must sacrifice everything to protect a handful of people he could never hope to identify with. It’s compelling stuff, and it may be Leonard’s most dramatic offering.
Glitz sounds like standard crime fare–a weary detective who has seen it all is stalked by a petty crook with revenge on his mind. Yet there’s nothing standard about this tale, and as clichéd as the protagonist and the antagonist may appear on the surface, it’s their depth and the complexity of their little struggle that elevate this into the upper stratosphere of crime fiction. Glitz is a flawless exercise in telling a riveting story that zips along toward a provocative conclusion. Vincent Mora thinks he has seen it all, but the book opens with our hero getting shot after he mishandles a delicate situation. Teddy Magyk thinks he has what it takes to gun down the man who once put him behind bars, but nothing about his quest for vengeance goes according to plan. This is a sublime example of Leonard’s work; in fact, I think it is a perfect representation of all the things I have pointed out in regards to Leonard’s talent and style. It’s exciting, it’s funny, it has some romance, it has a lot of style, it moves quickly, and the dialogue is perfect. Glitz is a clear winner, and I think it has to be my favorite book from an author who I can’t gush about enough.
Bonus Round: 6-10 (without commentary)
6) Riding the Rap
7) Road Dogs
8) The Big Bounce
9) The Bounty Hunters
10) Rum Punch
James Wayland is an author from rural Virginia; he’s currently running a Kickstarter campaign to release his second novel, Dirty Southside Jam. Read about that campaign by clicking here, and order copies of his first novel, Trailer Park Trash & Vampires, by clicking here. Follow James’s blog at landofway.blogspot.com.